Pentagon to ‘Adversaries’: Space Is Not A Good Place to Start War

Posted March 17, 2015 at 1:45pm

Worried that U.S. military satellites have become increasingly vulnerable to attack, the Pentagon plans to spend a scarce $5 billion on new initiatives over the next five years to protect them.

The defense budget’s growth, along with other discretionary spending, is limited by a 2011 law, so providing an average of $1 billion per year for any new military program says a lot about its perceived importance. In this case, U.S. officials are increasingly open to indicating the risk to U.S. satellites from attack by China or Russia has grown in recent years to dangerous levels.

“This is a far more serious commitment to the mission area, reflective of what we see in the threat,” Douglas L. Loverro, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for space policy, said in an interview. “We know the threat is growing. And we have concluded that we need to go ahead and commit more to assuring your space capabilities will be there when you need them.”

The $5 billion increase in spending, much of it classified, has gone virtually unnoticed since the budget was released last month. If enacted, it would be good news for space contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. as well as a host of smaller companies that have seen a scaling back of planned spending in this area and in the defense budget at large.

Recommending the spending and talking about a traditionally secretive budget are meant to send a message to U.S. foes, Loverro said.

“What we really want to do is to let our adversaries know that space is not a good place to start a war,” Loverro said. “We’re going to make ourselves far less vulnerable. We don’t want to encourage anybody to make this a domain where conflict happens. But if it does, we’ll be ready for it.”

Threat Assessment

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a closed briefing Tuesday on space, cybersecurity and competition with China and Russia. The threat to U.S. satellites was certain to be discussed. The witnesses were Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command; Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command; and Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command.

Satellites make the American way of war possible. For instance, the armed drones that have become a centerpiece of U.S. military operations could not operate effectively without satellites. Likewise, satellites guide U.S. bombs to their targets, help ships navigate, permit commanders to communicate, detect missile launches — and then some.

Other nations are looking to emulate America’s space success. Some countries — notably China and Russia — also are looking to disrupt or disable the U.S. advantage in case of conflict.

Accordingly, they’re building new anti-satellite weapons and resuscitating others first developed during the Cold War. These systems include ground-based equipment that jams signals, “hit to kill” interceptors, lasers and miniature satellites capable of ramming larger ones. Doctrine and other public statements in Beijing and Moscow reflect these countries’ emphasis on waging war over the “high ground,” as space is sometimes called.

China and Russia have investigated “every aspect” of attacking space systems, Loverro said, and “the threat has accelerated, versus what we had anticipated.”

When China, for example, launched an anti-satellite rocket last summer, it was “more robust and more mature” than expected. As a result, he said, “today our satellites are vulnerable, because we didn’t design them against the threats we see developing.”

Loverro is not the only U.S. official who is willing to talk more frankly than usual about the danger.

President Barack Obama’s new National Security Strategy, unveiled last month, was more pointed about the threats than was the previous strategy document that came out in 2010.

“We will also develop technologies and tactics to deter and defeat efforts to attack our space systems; enable indications, warning, and attributions of such attacks; and enhance the resiliency of critical U.S. space capabilities,” Obama’s new strategy says.

In testimony in February, U.S. defense and intelligence leaders were more specific about Chinese and Russian capabilities than Obama was, and more direct about the danger.

The chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, Haney, said the trends are “very disturbing.” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, spelled out other countries’ anti-satellite capabilities and predicted they will become more potent in 2015 and beyond.

New Initiatives

U.S. officials are being more transparent, too, about their technical responses to the moves by China and Russia, in order to send those countries and any other potential adversary a clear message: U.S. satellites won’t be so vulnerable in a few years and, as a result, developing or deploying anti-satellite weapons is a fool’s errand.

The new spending will focus on mostly defensive measures. Officials want to make U.S. navigation and communications satellites more resistant to jamming. The plan also includes launching more satellites with smaller payloads. (“Fewer baskets, more eggs,” Loverro said.) Commanders can also maneuver satellites into orbits where they are less vulnerable, he said. The Pentagon’s also putting into orbit surveillance sensors that will increase commanders’ awareness of what’s happening in space. And space commanders are setting up a new command and control system and creating a center under Strategic Command for modeling, simulations and exercises, Loverro said.

Whether the United States is, like China and Russia, developing its own weapons to take out an adversary’s space systems is not something Loverro or other officials want to discuss, though experts say it’s likely that the Pentagon is maintaining capabilities along these lines.

The hope is instead to mainly invest in better protections, and to only talk about that part. That might dissuade adversaries from spending more on or deploying anti-satellite weapons. If that doesn’t work, better defenses might at least reduce the chances of a successful attack on U.S. satellites.